Becoming more self-reliant means growing as much of my own food as possible. After researching the best ways to grow more food in the tropical climate here in Florida, I started researching permaculture techniques and came across the idea of an edible food forest. The idea of using what naturally is available mixed with methods of rejuvenating the dry arid soil we currently had, seemed the best option. So started my journey to developing an edible food forest on our own homestead.
In this post, I will share with you the journey that we started on towards developing an edible food forest on our own homestead. I will share what we have learned so far, and show you how to get started on your own edible food forest. Remember that our climate and weather will probably be different than yours so you will have to adapt your plants and other aspects to your climate, soil, and preferences.
How to Establish a Fantastic Edible Food Forest Easily
Why We Needed to Establish an Edible Food Forest
Our homestead in Central Florida has definitely been a challenge for gardening. Our soil is well, sand, 100% light tan, fine sand. It is impossible to grow anything successfully except weeds and native plants. Cactus grows well too obviously. Rain hits the ground and disappears leaving behind no sign of its presence. Raised beds helped contain the new soil we added but the intense heat allowed for the raised beds to dry out quicker than the beds we dug directly into the soil.
And if our soil wasn’t useless enough, we have climate issues too. Our summers are either scorching with 100% humidity or raining to the point where everything washes away or is drowned by a large amount of rainfall that falls over shorts bursts of time. Our winters are mild, yet we get that surprise week where temperatures fall to the lower 30’s followed by 60, 70, and sometimes 80 degree days. The constant yet eccentric conditions in the weather cause the plants to simply never know what they are actually supposed to be doing.
It gets cold and the plants go dormant, then the days hit 80 degrees and they flower and thrive, then the temperature drops again, leaving the plants in a state of confusion. Therefore, they don’t really get a chance to adapt. This made gardening difficult on my homestead. Thus the idea of an edible food forest seemed the answer.
Exactly What is an Edible Food Forest
You need to understand first exactly what an edible food forest is before you can start your own. It is important to understand the structure and the principles behind this form of gardening.
An edible food forest is basically a natural habitat where tall trees grow over smaller trees, followed by an outer layer of shrubs and bushes, which are then surrounded by edible plants. It does not need human intervention to grow and thrive. Each layer of this edible food forest has a purpose and works to protect or help other layers produce.
Being mostly perennial plants, there is no need to till the soil. This allows all the microbes and ‘soil critters’ to do their job which means very fertile soil. Because the trees and shrubs maintain deep roots they become more drought tolerant, all while protecting the plants beneath them. This whole process allows the environment of a food forest to become lush and self-maintaining.
The Basic Layers of an Edible Food Forest:
Top Layer: The Canopy – These are the tallest trees, native to the soil they are growing. This layer provides the most shade and protection from the sun and the elements yet still allowing enough sunlight to the trees below.
Second Layer: The Understory – This layer includes smaller fruit and nut trees that are usually grown on dwarf or semi-dwarf rootstock. Peach. apricot and mulberry are excellent examples of this layer.
Third Layer: Shrub Layer – This layer is usually filled with fruiting bushes like currents and berries. Butterfly bush and Goji berries are good examples of this layer.
Fourth Layer: Herb Layer – Herbs in this layer simply mean non-woody vegetation: vegetables, flowers, culinary herbs, and cover crops, as well as mulch producers and other soil-building plants. Asparagus, Calendula, and Dill are examples.
Fifth Layer: Ground Cover – This layer normally has edible plants that spread horizontally. Strawberries, clover, and creeping time are all good examples here.
Sixth Layer: Vine Layer – This layer normally has vines and climbers that grow on other nearby plants and trees. Examples include Kiwi, grapes, and passionflower.
Seventh Layer: Roots– These are the plants that are usually harvested for their roots. Onions and garlic are good examples.
Creating these seven layers is quite a challenge. Especially if you think you can do it all and quickly. We did not have the funds nor the patience to wait years for our edible food forest to develop so we had to make some adjustments to the plan. I knew we had to at least get started, even if it was not the most ideal way.
Choosing the Location
The location of your edible food forest will determine how well it performs. Although, if you have the ability to start with towering trees, great soil, and established plants already on your property, then lucky you! We started with an empty field with nothing but grass and weeds and minimum shade from nearby live oaks.
To get started you simply need to choose an area that you can work with that receives sun and shade. You can always make more shade. You can not make more sun. As far as size, any size will work, just scale your plants to the size you choose to use. The area we chose was directly in front of our home. It measures about 380 or so feet from east to west and about 80 feet from north to south. Once you choose where you wish to start your edible food forest, mark it off, or fence it in. We chose to fence it in here due to the animals that do run amuck on my homestead.
Please remember to take into consideration that the areas that get full sun now may not get full sun during other seasons. The same goes for the current shaded areas. That means if you plant something that will thrive in full sun, make sure you are planting in the right season where that area actually receives full sun.
Planning Your Site
Once the location of your edible food forest is decided, it is time to start planning everything out. Even though it seems to make sense that you should start with your soil, I recommend that you start with the placement of the tallest trees or the canopy layer. Once you decide where these trees will be planted and what trees to choose, you can start with the soil in those areas first. Then as you work through each layer, you can add and change the soil as needed.
We were not able to go out and purchase new trees at that time so we had to work with what we had. We had five Loquat saplings, four banana pups, and two 30′ tall trees that I thought were Maples. Those Maple trees ended up being Sweet Gum trees. I found this out a few weeks ago when I stepped on one of the ‘spiny balls’ it drops in winter in my bare feet! Those spiny balls are in a bowl in my living room now and I wear shoes when I am under those two trees now.
We also have quite a few live oaks and other oak trees. Those oaks are not directly in my fenced-in area, but they are tall enough to provide some shade for both sides of the new edible food forest.
If you have the same money situation we had at the time, you may have to start the same way, using what you have. If you can afford to make some tree purchases, then you need to know how to decide what trees are right for you.
Deciding on Which Trees To Choose
There are 3 things to consider when choosing trees. The first is whether the species of tree you choose grows in your climate naturally. The second is the purpose of the tree and the third consideration is the maintenance requirements of the tree. Keeping these three considerations in mind will help you start your own successful, low maintenance, and beneficial canopy layer to your edible food forest. Let’s talk about each one.
Choosing Trees for your Climate
This one is pretty self-explanatory. Basically, don’t plant apple trees if you live in Alaska. A Weeping Willow, illegal due to the waterline damage they cause, won’t thrive in the desert conditions of Arizona. Research which trees thrive where you live. Look at the zone map for your area and make sure the trees you choose are appropriate for your edible food forest.
Choosing Trees that Suit your Purpose
Knowing the purpose of the trees you choose is very important. Tall trees are planted to provide protection from too much sun for the plants beneath them. Make sure the species of trees you choose for your edible food forest will grow to do just that. Look at things like height and how far their branches spread at maturity so you can allow for this down the road.
Choosing Trees that Don’t Require a lot of Maintenance
Remember that these trees are the tallest layer of your edible food forest. That means you may not be able to regularly prune and trim them as you may need to. Also, keep in mind that falling branches and limbs can damage other plants beneath them. Make sure to choose sturdy, low-maintenance trees for these reasons. Piling ladders and ropes to trim branches constantly can be a challenge once your food forest is established.
Once you have chosen the appropriate tress for your edible food forest, you need to make sure they get a good healthy start. This means you now should consider the soil.
Getting the Soil Prepared for Planting
Good soil is so important to the success of any garden, be it small or large. To have good soil, most of us have to amend it and add something to it. In other words, most of us can not work at all with what we already have. Instead, our current soil acts as a base to which we must add certain other parts to make it as usable and fertile as possible. You won’t have a clue what those amendments are until you test the soil.
Testing the Soil
Testing the soil is simple. Take a sample, place it in a jar and take it to your local agricultural center. If you don’t have one nearby, you can pick up a soil test kit in just about any department or gardening store. Home Depot and Lowes sell them pretty affordably. I won’t go into much detail about the testing, however, let’s talk about the ways you can amend the soil, based on your test results.
Amending the Soil
Most plants grow extremely well in rich soil that is filled with organic nutrients and good minerals. After all, that’s what the forest floor is. It is a mixture of decomposed leaves, animal droppings, and moisture that have balanced out naturally over time. You need to replicate that soil as close as you can in your edible food forest. To do this there are many ways to add to what you already have.
Amendments to the soil can include:
- Manure: chicken, rabbit, cow, horse, pig, and goat
- Hay: preferably weed-free if possible
- Dead plants, leaves, cut grass
- Wood Ashes: not recommended in large amounts (acidic)
- Compost: see Composting What You Need To Know About It and What Can You Add to the Compost Pile
- Lime: used to neutralize acidic soils
- Fish Fertilizer
How We Created Good Soil for my Edible Food Forest
We had a simple base to start with, sand. The good news is that it is very good for drainage. The bad news is that that’s all it is good for, nothing else. So to the sand, we started adding compost. Tons and tons of compost. You can read about composting the best way in the links above.
Once we know where we are starting a bed, we mark off the area and start piling on all the good stuff. We add loads of compost, leaves and or straw or hay. Once we have all of those nutrients in the area we are planting, we simply use a hand rake to mix it all up. This makes a good foundation to plant in for an edible food forest.
As time goes forward, we will actually add food scraps, more leaves, manure, and anything that is good for the soil every so often to keep “feeding” my soil. Sometimes those piles on your garden beds don’t look all that pleasing to the neighbors so if that is an issue for you, cover it all with wood chips or grass or leaves.
Just a note here: if you are starting off on a patch of grass, you may want to layer a bunch of layers of newspaper or cardboard to kill the grass. If you do this you wanna pile new soil very thick for planting and concentrate on ground cover crops in those areas. Use vegetables like melons and squash or even herbs and flowers until next year when the cardboard has decomposed enough for root vegetables. You can remove the grass also. We do not. We cover it up.
Planting Your Trees
Once you have decided what trees to plant in your edible food forest and you have your soil ready to go it is time to plant. Find a good spot that gets full sun for your trees. Make sure you allow enough room between them so that when they reach maturity, they are not crowding each other and blocking every bit of sun below them. Usually, the spacing and requirements of each tree will be listed on the tag of the tree. You can also inquire about its needs from the nursery or gardener you get the tree from.
Plant your trees in the best spaces possible for your situation. If you live in an area that gets a lot of wind, you may want to secure your trees with some heavy string that is tied to a stake or two. The taut string on each side should support the tree through any heavy wind. It also helps the trunk to grow straighter.
Pecans, Walnuts, and Chestnuts may be good choices for the canopy layer as they grow up to 50 feet tall. These plants are normally placed on the northern side of the edible food forest with the smaller plants to the south. This allows the smaller plants to receive enough sun during the beginning and end of the growing season when the days are much shorter.
Bamboo is a great plant to fill in areas of your edible food forest. You can even start a bamboo farm! Learn how to do so in the post, Bamboo Farming for Homestead Income (Start a Bamboo Farm!, by Outdoor Happens.
Planting the Understory
In most edible food forests, the understory is made up of shorter fruit and nut trees. If you have planted saplings, it won’t make sense to plant a smaller tree under them. However, if you are using an existing tree on your property of decent size or at maturity, you can now choose and plant your shorter rootstock trees.
Trees good for the understory may include Black Mulberry, Persimmon, and PawPaw trees. These and many other trees grow and produce well in partial shade. Make sure again to allow enough room between the trees to allow for growth.
Planting the Shrubs
There are many fruiting shrubs that grow well and produce in partial shade. Huckleberry, Beautyberry, and Currants are a few great choices for this layer. Make sure when planting these shrubs you allow room all the around for harvesting berries later.
Planting the Herb Layer
This is where the fun begins. This layer is all about constant, year after year activity. This layer is not just for common herbs like Rosemary. Lavender and Sage. This layer is all about perennial vegetables as well. Veggies like asparagus, rhubarbs, and tree collards are perfect for this layer.
Planting the Ground Cover and Vines
This layer is for the plants that grow along the ground. Plants like watermelon, squash, mint, strawberries, passionflower, grapes, and goji berries. These plants provide edibles while attaching to the trees, shrubs, and any trellis-type structures they happen to encounter. Edible flowers are also a great addition!
Planting the Root Layer
The root layer of your edible food forest includes vegetables such as potatoes, turnips, and garlic. These are the plants you wish to consume that hide their edible parts beneath the top layer of the soil.
Special Notes When Starting Out
When you first place plants in a new food forest you may not have mature, 50-foot tall trees yet. It is ok to plant sun-loving plants closer to the smaller, newly planted trees. However, as those trees grow and start to spread out you will want to replace those sun-loving plants with more shade-tolerant plants and move the sun-loving plants further out.
When planting vining species that climb, make sure that the surrounding plants or structures are strong enough to hold the weight of the vine when it bears fruit. Also, be sure that the vine will not be suffocating to the plant it is growing on.
Providing Water for your Edible Food Forest
Eventually, you should really not have to water your food forest because, in the long-term, it should be maintenance-free for the most part. However, when your just getting started, water is definitely something you need to take into consideration when designing your food forest.
There are many options for providing water in the beginnings of your edible food forest.
Three common options for watering are:
- Ground Irrigation (soaker hoses and PVC DIY watering)
- Overhead Sprinklers
Only you will know what is the most affordable and feasible way to water your food forest. We began with a hose connected to my rain barrels and hand-watered as needed. Once the number of areas increased in size and hand watering each area became too time-consuming, we invested in a sprinkler. Home Depot sold a tripod-type sprinkler that was height adjustable. It also had a great head on it. When we hooked the hose it sprayed out in a circumference that watered almost my entire area.
We are currently designing and installing a PVC-type sprinkler that will attach to the top of the fence with circular heads. We are setting these up in zones so I can water one area at a time. If there are spots the sprinklers won’t reach in the center I still have the tripod sprinkler like this on Amazon.
Swales have basically raised mounds of dirt that allow the water to stay or run where you need it to be. Since our ground is so flat, we decided these were not for us. If you are interested in using swales for your food forest then check out Tenth Acre Farms’ post What is A Permaculture Swale: Irrigate the Easy Way.
Now you should have a pretty good understanding of what an edible food forest is, why it thrives, and how to get started. Do you see how having such a food forest can increase your self-reliance on your homestead? Can you imagine walking out your front door and having all those edible goodies available and just waiting to be picked and consumed? Have you read Gaia’s Garden: A Guide To Home-Scale Permaculture? It is a great preparatory post for getting started on a smaller scale.
Make sure to keep following us as we continue our journey of self-reliance by providing a good amount of our own food by means of our own edible food forest. Let us know if you will start your own edible food forest on your homestead! If you have questions, please feel free to reach out to us and ask! We are more than happy to help you in any way we can.
Be sure to check out my newest e-book A Simple Guide To Plants In An Edible Food Forest for complete plant lists and suggestions!